I am Jewish. I have attended secular schools of the public and private variety, Modern Orthodox Jewish Day Schools, and a Pluralistic Jewish Day School. One type of school I’ve never attended is a Christian school.
I just started my freshman year here at Austin College, which is a Presbyterian college. It’s probably hard for student readers to picture what it’s like to be a Jew in attendance at a Christian school with less than 1,300 people on campus. Well, let me paint it for you.
It’s a tremendous challenge; the total Jewish student body population is less than one percent.. As someone who has spent her youth studying the works of great Jewish minds as a part of her core education, coming here has been a great culture shock.
I was able to spot approximately three Jews on campus; and wouldn’t you guess — I already knew all of them from previous Jewish organizations or schools. So, let’s sum this up: no new Jews on campus with whom I can identify, no strong Jewish presence, and an overwhelming Christian population.
My orientation at this college entailed a lot of Christian prayer and programs run by Christian clergy. Additionally, an optional Christian service was provided on the first Sunday I was in attendance. Most everyone here wears a cross around their necks, mentions Jesus in side conversation, and writes poetry about the Bible (is this true?). Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but the truth is, it makes me feel isolated.
During one of the first orientation programs we had, the leader of the program had the entire freshman class congregate in a lecture hall and then asked audience members to stand up if he said an identity that they could relate to. He first said “all Catholics, please stand up”, and went forth naming the different sects of Christianity, each one getting a bigger cheer from the audience than the last. And before he concluded, he said “all non-Christians, please stand up” (or something along those lines). Guess who stood up in that crowded auditorium after seeing the mass amounts of Christian pride demonstrated? Me. And a handful of other people. A handful. And by a handful, I mean less than ten.
That was the first time in a very long time that I was reminded of something: I am distinctly and solely Jewish. I use these two words to describe my Judaism in that moment because I was markedly Jewish and alone in that Jewishness. Yes, I know the spiel: all Jews are a community, even if separated geographically. But do you know how hard it is to be the last Jew standing? To look around and be alone in your identity? It’s hard. It’s really hard.
A little while ago, a girl in class publicly called my literature professor a “grammar-Nazi”, which warranted some amusement from classmates. I was reviled by this, and shocked that no one else was demonstrating the same level of outward disgust. And I remembered something: “Oh yeah, I’m shocked, because we don’t say that kind of thing in Jewish Day School, because we’re all the descendants of Holocaust survivors”. Then, another girl in a different class called the Holocaust an event where “a bunch of Jews were killed”. And it again, hit me. In a way more visceral than it does every day: I am distinctly and solely Jewish. Part of being a Jew is learning how to be a Jew in isolation.
Part of being a Jew is learning how to be distinctly and solely Jewish. At least to me. It’s hard, but there is good in being one of the few. My Judaism still blossoms, even when the rain does not fall; I have enough water stored in me from my years at Akiba, Yavneh, and other Jewish institutions (and friends) to last a lifetime, thank Hashem. I leave you with what I began: I am Jewish.
Shema Israel Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.